How do I show a skeptic that atoms/molecules actually exist?

  • #1

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This might be a stupid question so please bear with me.

I am having a debate with a friend of mine over the Internet. It is about science. His argument is that although science works (that is the technology part), science cannot actually tell anything about "reality".

He sites for example the famous case where gravity was thought to be a "force". This was the "reality" for over 200 years. People got work (i.e. technology) out of Newtons equations of gravity, thinking that it was a "force".

But Al Einstein showed in 1917 I believe that gravity is not a force, and that the objects fall not because of a force, but due to something called the curvature of space time.

So, likewise he says that although we use electricity, make atom bombs, create drugs and chemicals (i.e. technology), we actually don't know whether atoms or even molecules really exist. He says that we really don't know whether protons, neutrons or electrons really exist. He says that they have not been proved to exist using the "scientific_method".

His argument is that since we thought that gravity was a force (wrongly) but got work done using Newtons equations, likewise we cannot say that sub-atomic particles, atoms or molecules actually exist (i.e. reality)( although we get work (technology) done out of these things (which he says are just models only. That is, an atom is just a model. It does not actually exist.)).

How would YOU guys, the experts answer my friend???

Is there a way to actually see sub-atomic particles, atoms or molecules?? Can we actually see these things with our naked eye through a powerful telescope?? Maybe if I can show a actual picture of an atom or molecule he might be convinced that they do actually exist.

Was the existence of sub-atomic particles, atoms and molecules proved using directly using the scientific method, or they proved to exist indirectly?

I love to hear your thoughts on this.
 
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Answers and Replies

  • #2
sophiecentaur
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science cannot actually tell anything about "reality".
Science doesn't attempt to do that. All Science attempts to do is to make a model that can be used to predict what will happen to within some accuracy. It's Non-Scientists who demand 'reality'.
 
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  • #3
Science doesn't attempt to do that. All Science attempts to do is to make a model that can be used to predict what will happen to within some accuracy. It's Non-Scientists who demand 'reality'.
So, are you saying that atoms and molecules actually don't exist? We don't actually know whether they exist or not???

That is very strange. Because I know they exist. How can we create an atom bomb, if atoms did not exist?

Are you saying that scientists are not sure that electrons exist??

So, if a ask a question from scientists whether electrons exist, his answer is "we don't know for sure. We have a model called the electron. But whether it actually exist we are not sure"??

If the answer above is what scientists tell you, then I say it's preposterous. What is the point in science then??? People will laugh at scientists if they give an answer like above.
 
  • #4
sophiecentaur
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So, are you saying that atoms and molecules actually don't exist? We don't actually know whether they exist or not???

That is very strange. Because I know they exist. How can we create an atom bomb, if atoms did not exist?
No. All we can say is that certain things can be explained by assuming that those things exist. That's as far as it goes.
I would challenge you that you do not "know" things exist. You have read about them but you have never personally seen an electron - or even measured the presence of a single electron. You have a working knowledge of the system to some level and you can't ask for more than that.
Any more discussion of this is Philosophy and PF doesn't do Philosophy.
 
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  • #5
That is CRAZY.

I just Googled out of curiosity and what do you know, now we can actually see atoms using a super powerful microscope?

https://motherboard.vice.com/en_us/article/8qxe7z/this-microscope-can-see-down-to-individual-atoms

So, what do you say now?? Do you still say that atoms don't exist.

What is the purpose of grand unification?? Isn't it to find the single force that exists?? If it does not exist then why bother trying to find it?
 
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  • #6
Drakkith
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So, what do you say now?? Do you still say that atoms don't exist.
I'd say that there is no way to tell whether the objects we see using that microscope are actually atoms or whether they are something else which merely appears to be atoms, but has other properties which would distinguish them from atoms but that we just cannot see.

What is the purpose of grand unification?? Isn't it to find the single force that exists?? If it does not exist then why bother trying to find it?
There's a difference between accepting that science will never be able to say with absolute certainty that our models truly describe reality versus saying that our models do not and cannot describe reality. It's entirely possible that our understanding of gravity is correct and that gravity truly works exactly how we model it. However, there is literally nothing we could do to determine whether this is true or whether there are differences between our models and reality that we just cannot observe. Perhaps the differences are too small, or perhaps there are unobservable forces. We may not be able to be absolutely certain that science describes reality, but that doesn't stop it from being incredibly useful.
 
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  • #7
Are you guys saying that Peter Higgs & François Englert was awarded the Nobel Prize (the GREATEST prize any human can get) just for "Creating a model of a Higgs Boson"???

Because, if you say that particles are just "models", they are not DISCOVERIES ain't It?? They are CREATIONS ain't It?

Are you saying that some alien species in a far away galaxy can model these same things DIFFERENTLY??

So, the LHC actually did not discover any Higgs particle??? They just discovered a "model" of a particle you named Higgs?

This is what the Nobel Prize site says about this: https://www.nobelprize.org/nobel_prizes/physics/laureates/2013/

The Nobel Prize in Physics 2013 was awarded jointly to François Englert and Peter W. Higgs "for the theoretical discovery of a mechanism that contributes to our understanding of the origin of mass of subatomic particles, and which recently was confirmed through the discovery of the predicted fundamental particle, by the ATLAS and CMS experiments at CERN's Large Hadron Collider"

So, are you saying that the LHC at CERN did not actually discover any real particle??

This is completely NUTS!!!
 
  • #8
Ok ok I got it now.

I went to Wikipedia Science page which says this:
Working scientists usually take for granted a set of basic assumptions that are needed to justify the scientific method: (1) that there is an objective reality shared by all rational observers; (2) that this objective reality is governed by natural laws; (3) that these laws can be discovered by means of systematic observation and experimentation.[10] Philosophy of science seeks a deep understanding of what these underlying assumptions mean and whether they are valid.

The belief that scientific theories should and do represent metaphysical reality is known as realism. It can be contrasted with anti-realism, the view that the success of science does not depend on it being accurate about unobservable entities such as electrons. One form of anti-realism is idealism, the belief that the mind or consciousness is the most basic essence, and that each mind generates its own reality.[m] In an idealistic world view, what is true for one mind need not be true for other minds.


So, there is actually many "schools of thought" about this. You guys are clearly anti-realists, right??
 
  • #9
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What is the point in science then???
The point of science is to develop models that accurately predict the outcome of experiments.

He sites for example the famous case where gravity was thought to be a "force". This was the "reality" for over 200 years. People got work (i.e. technology) out of Newtons equations of gravity, thinking that it was a "force".

But Al Einstein showed in 1917 I believe that gravity is not a force, and that the objects fall not because of a force, but due to something called the curvature of space time. ... His argument is that since we thought that gravity was a force (wrongly)
Your friend is wrong to think of the force model as wrong: http://chem.tufts.edu/answersinscience/relativityofwrong.htm

The model that treats gravity as a force is an excellent model and even today accurately predicts many real experimental results. The model that treats it as spacetime curvature makes all of those predictions correctly, as well as some additional ones. The subsequent development of the spacetime curvature model did not diminish the force model’s accuracy in any of its experimentally validated predictions. The force model remains an accurate and valid model of reality within its domain of applicability.
 
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  • #10
The point of science is to develop models that accurately predict the outcome of experiments.

The model that treats gravity as a force is an excellent model and accurately predicts many experimental results. The model that treats it as spacetime curvature makes all of those predictions correctly, as well as some additional ones
Well, I have to disagree. Developing models that accurately predict outcomes is only the MEANS to the END. It is only ONE aspect of SCIENCE.

The END result or the POINT OF science is this (I got this from Google btw which I also agree with):
Science aims to explain and understand. Science as a collective institution aims to produce more and more accurate natural explanations of how the natural world works, what its components are, and how the world got to be the way it is now.

So, the POINT of science is to find HOW THE NATURAL WORLD WORK and WHAT IT'S COMPONENTS ARE. Also to find how the universe began and what is beyond the universe, what is time and does it have any beginning and things like that. Components are the electrons, protons, neutrons, atoms and molecules and also things like quarks.

Do you think scientists just work in labs to develop models and do experiments just for the sake of it?? NO. They model what they think ACTUALLY EXIST. When Peter Higgs hypothesized the Higgs Boson in the 60s he actually THOUGHT THAT IT HAS TO EXIST.

They want to know what there is really and that is why they do it, not just to be some kind of an modeler or experimenter all their life.

I am shocked that Physics Forum Mentor don't get this.
 
  • #11
Vanadium 50
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That is CRAZY.
This is completely NUTS!!!
These aren't terribly convincing arguments. And the capitalization doesn't help.

Sophiecentaur, Dale and Drakkith are right. Science is about finding models that work, and all of these models are tentative and subject to replacement as more is learned. There was a time when we thought atoms were indivisible. Now we don't.

It is, however, the case that some models have undergone such thorough testing that disbelieving them is not rational. However, this doesn't mean the models cannot be superseded. It means that the model that supersedes them needs to make every prediction of the old model and then some. As in Dale's example.
 
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  • #12
russ_watters
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Not exactly what this thread was intended to be about, but here's more on why the example of Newton's laws being "wrong" is, well, wrong:
http://chem.tufts.edu/answersinscience/relativityofwrong.htm

Also, while I agree with others, I don't know that they are directly/strongly responding to this point for what it is:
His argument is that although science works (that is the technology part), science cannot actually tell anything about "reality".
The way that is written - separated by a comma - implies those are two separate things. They aren't. Experiments are things that happen in "reality". I drop a rock, it accelerates and falls to the ground. That really happens. That's "reality". The theories/models accurately describe what happens in the experiments, so that means they tell us how "reality" works.

People who don't like science and want there to be something "deeper" or define "reality" as being an exact result find excuses for why there must always be something "more". There can always be another "why" or another experiment that gives us more information to enable the model to be refined a little more. That tells us more about "reality" than was previously known, but that doesn't mean what was known before wasn't about "reality". It was. There may be an equation that describes something exactly and we may never know it, but that doesn't mean the equation that gets us close doesn't describe "reality". It does. You don't have to know everything to know a lot.

It's a bit like demanding that a digital photo must have an infinite resolution in order to describe "reality". That's just silly: a low resolution photo is still a description of "reality" and it is precise/accurate up to a certain point. That level of precision/accuracy is how well we know "reality".
 
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  • #13
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I was going to just reply:
How would YOU guys, the experts answer my friend???

Is there a way to actually see sub-atomic particles, atoms or molecules?? Can we actually see these things with our naked eye through a powerful telescope?? Maybe if I can show a actual picture of an atom or molecule he might be convinced that they do actually exist.
Yes, and I've seen them, and I believe them.

However, these are Epistemological questions, and Skeptics tend to like them and to invoke them all the time. However, at the same time, on the same line of thoughts, skeptics can question Everything/Anything!, including the things that they see with naked eye! ... Even questioning Objective Reality. (In Epistemology, it's a matter of jystifying our beliefs etc. ...)
But that's not Physics! So I wouldn't worry about them, and I wouldn't waste time with them! ...
[Because they will tell you that what we "see" can be just a sensation in our brain etc. etc. ... (and perhaps they will also tell you that we could just be "brains in vats ..." ! ...)]
Like I said. Don't worry about them. (IMO)

P.S. You can use these arguments to your skeptic friend, and see how he reacts.

P.S.2
Ok ok I got it now.

I went to Wikipedia Science page which says this:
Working scientists usually take for granted a set of basic assumptions that are needed to justify the scientific method: (1) that there is an objective reality shared by all rational observers; (2) that this objective reality is governed by natural laws; (3) that these laws can be discovered by means of systematic observation and experimentation.[10] Philosophy of science seeks a deep understanding of what these underlying assumptions mean and whether they are valid.
Skeptics will even question those. Also, it doesn't really matter if they are realists or idealists etc. . Once they get into those epistemological questions (of justification) they will get stuck! Don't waste time with them! [... because you could get stuck too! ...]

P.S.3: Welcome to PF!
 
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  • #14
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Well, I have to disagree.
You are certainly free to disagree. However, I would point this out to you:

Science is not the only pursuit which “aims to explain and understand”. Philosophy, religion, and even myths all have the same goal. What makes science unique is the tool employed in that pursuit: the scientific method.

The scientific method starts with a model, uses the model to make a prediction, performs an experiment, compares the experimental result to the prediction, and improves the model. That is how the tool works.

The output of scientific method is experimentally validated models. The use of the scientific method is what distinguishes science from other pursuits. So it certainly seems to me that the point of science is indeed to produce models as I described above. Otherwise you may as well use myths, which are much easier to do than science.

I would be interested to hear

1) why you find that unsatisfactory
2) how you think the scientific method can be used to accomplish anything else
 
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  • #15
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It's a bit like demanding that a digital photo must have an infinite resolution in order to describe "reality". That's just silly: a low resolution photo is still a description of "reality" and it is precise/accurate up to a certain point. That level of precision/accuracy is how well we know "reality".
Perfect example and perfect analogy!
However, here's a faster way to get rid of skeptics:
The way that is written - separated by a comma - implies those are two separate things. They aren't. Experiments are things that happen in "reality". I drop a rock, it accelerates and falls to the ground. That really happens. That's "reality". The theories/models accurately describe what happens in the experiments, so that means they tell us how "reality" works.
Skeptics can even question the results of experiments and tests of models. They could simply say that it's all part of our senses, the data can be nothing but "a description of "reality" perceived by our common senses [and perhaps not reality itself or anything related to it]", and that it's possible that we all share a common illusion ... [even perceiving possibly the false data ...].
Yeah, right! Give me a break!

So there is only one way (IMO):
Don't worry about them, and keep studying Reality. (cf. post #13)

P.S. A way to convince them though can sometimes be the following:
Tell them to re-think of their questioning of reality (even after seeing photos of molecules, atoms etc.) when they are in real pain! ... :wink:
If they don't abide ... tell them: well you said "it doesn't exist!" :biggrin:
 
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  • #16
russ_watters
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Skeptics can even question the results of experiments and tests of models. They could simply say that it's all part of our senses, the data can be nothing but "a description of "reality" perceived by our common senses [and perhaps not reality itself or anything related to it]", and that it's possible that we all share a common illusion ... [even perceiving possibly the false data ...].
Yeah, right! Give me a break!
Sure, that happens; and at that point they are demanding something they believe doesn't even exist: If reality doesn't exist, then science can't describe it. That's just argumentative.
 
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  • #17
ZapperZ
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His argument is that although science works (that is the technology part), science cannot actually tell anything about "reality".
Isn't this, by itself, a "model" or conjecture about our world, and thus by its own rule, may not reflect reality?

The ugly beast has managed to turn around and consumes itself.

Zz.
 
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  • #18
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Isn't this, by itself, a "model" or conjecture about our world, and thus by its own rule, may not reflect reality?

The ugly beast has managed to turn around and consumes itself.

Zz.
Good point. Also
His argument is that although science works (that is the technology part), science cannot actually tell anything about "reality".
doesn't it at least tell us that "science works"!? That's certainly something! ...
[not to mention the fact that technology is certainly reality ...]
 
  • #19
The point of science is to develop models that accurately predict the outcome of experiments.

Your friend is wrong to think of the force model as wrong: http://chem.tufts.edu/answersinscience/relativityofwrong.htm

The model that treats gravity as a force is an excellent model and even today accurately predicts many real experimental results. The model that treats it as spacetime curvature makes all of those predictions correctly, as well as some additional ones. The subsequent development of the spacetime curvature model did not diminish the force model’s accuracy in any of its experimentally validated predictions. The force model remains an accurate and valid model of reality within its domain of applicability.
I find this problematic. I am not interested in applicability, which is like the technology. I am interested in "reality" part.

Because "reality" cannot have 2 descriptions right?? There can be only 1 description of reality, right??

So, the reason why objects fall to the ground (i.e. reality) cannot be due to both, a force or space-time curvature, right???

Only one of them has to be correct. That is my understanding.

PS: Think about this this way. What if a someone asks you why a apple falls to the ground. Surely, you can't say that "it is sometimes due a force, or sometimes due to space-time curvature". You have to say one of the 2 right??
 
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  • #20
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I find this problematic. I am not interested in applicability, which is like the technology. I am interested in "reality" part.

Because "reality" cannot have 2 descriptions right?? There can be only 1 description of reality, right??

So, the reason why objects fall to the ground cannot be due to both, a force or space-time curvature, right???

Only one of them has to be correct. That is my understanding.

PS: Think about this this way. What if a someone asks you why a apple falls to the ground. Surely, you can't say that "it is sometimes due a force, or sometimes due to space-time curvature". You have to say one of the 2 right??
Well, it could (virtually) be due to both. E.g. if space-time curvature generated a force, and then the force acted ... (I'm not saying that this is actally the case ...)
 
  • #21
Drakkith
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I am shocked that Physics Forum Mentor don't get this.
Prove that a Physics Forum Mentor actually exist and isn't an alien hacking into the internet from thirty lightyears away, a strange ghost who inhabits the web, or a figment of your imagination. You cannot prove that any of these are untrue with absolute certainty. Welcome to science.

Because "reality" cannot have 2 descriptions right?? There can be only 1 description of reality, right??
Regardless of whether that's true or not, consider the following.

Let's assume description 1 makes X prediction (or rather the rules of the theory providing that desription)and that description 2 makes Y prediction. Now, descriptions 1 and 2 are very different in their approach, their concepts, and their terminology, but X and Y end up differing by only one part in 1054. That's such a small difference that there are no observable differences between the two. Any difference is swamped by all of the other things going on, like ambient radiation, thermal motion, the foot traffic outside the building, the uncertainty principle, etc.

Which description is correct and how do you know?

So, the reason why objects fall to the ground cannot be due to both, a force or space-time curvature, right???
If both descriptions make the same predictions with the same accuracy and precision... yes. Both are perfectly acceptable.

This reminds me of the fact that it is entirely possible to set up our fundamental physical laws as if we were in a rotating reference frame instead of an inertial (non-rotating/non-accelerating) reference frame. It is vastly more difficult and complicated to use these laws to do things like build bridges and houses, but they make identical experimental predictions with the exact same accuracy and precision.

So which setup is correct? Which one describes "reality"?
 
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  • #22
Well, it could (virtually) be due to both. E.g. if space-time curvature generated a force, and then the force acted ... (I'm not saying that this is actally the case ...)
From my understanding of this stuff as physics enthusiast only, in Einstein's version (which is surely the correct version) falling objects don't experience any "force".

Here is a nice video explaining this:
 
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  • #23
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From my understanding of this stuff as physics enthusiast only, in Einstein's version (which is surely the correct version) falling objects don't experience any "force".

Here is a nice video explaining this:
I do not object. I just gave a hypothetical case as a counter-argument.
(+fast edited a typo, which I hope no one saw)
 
  • #24
"Prove that a Physics Forum Mentor actually exist and isn't an alien hacking into the internet from thirty lightyears away, a strange ghost who inhabits the web, or a figment of your imagination. "
.......................
I find this meaningless.

First, there has to be somebody who makes a positive statement (something exists) and if that person makes that statement, it is up-to HIM to prove it right.

Why should I prove your statement?? You are the one who said it. So, YOU have to prove that "alieans are hacking into the Internet", because nobody can prove a negative.

Like, nobody can prove that God does not exist. Only the people who say that God exists have the burden of proof.

But if you want to, I can prove it's not possible, since it is impossible for information to travel faster than C, it is not possible for an alien to hack our internet from 30 light years.

If you say "it's a strange ghost", then it's up-to YOU to show that a ghost inhabits the web.

I can also ask the same question from you: How do you know that objects fall to the ground NOT because some "ghosts" carry it to the ground??? How do you disprove it?
 
  • #25
Drakkith
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(emphasis mine)
Why should I prove your statement?? You are the one who said it. So, YOU have to prove that "alieans are hacking into the Internet", because nobody can prove a negative.
Exactly. Which means that we cannot rule out every possibility to converge on the one ultimate truth. It's literally impossible.

But if you want to, I can prove it's not possible, since it is impossible for information to travel faster than C, it is not possible for an alien to hack our internet from 30 light years.
You cannot prove that information is limited to the speed of light under all possible conditions, you can only provide evidence that, so far, we have never observed information or light traveling faster than c. How do you know that the speed of light is truly the speed limit for the universe and that the physical laws we currently understand are 100% accurate and will remain the same for all time?

I can also ask the same question from you: How do you know that objects fall to the ground NOT because some "ghosts" carry it to the ground??? How do you disprove it?
I can't. I don't claim that I can. And science isn't about absolute, infallible proof either. The description of objects accelerating under an applied force works well enough to make useful and accurate predictions, but there is no proof I could give you that forces are real instead of just useful concepts that may not physically exist.
 
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